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Does aid work?

By Michael Keating

With the advent of “complex emergencies” and the rapid growth of humanitarian aid agencies, it can be easy to lose sight of the reason for aid: its beneficiaries. Michael Keating asks the question “Does aid work?” and suggests a new way of answering it.

It is easy for aid practitioners to forget how young the whole aid “business” is. One could argue that development assistance is nothing new, that colonialism was a form – if not a desirable one – of development assistance. But as conventionally thought of, aid is little more than three or four decades old. For many, the Biafra crisis was the first major emergency aid operation.

Since then, the number of organisations involved in aid has mushroomed spectacularly. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of emergencies. The Red Cross flag, once almost alone among those of operational humanitarian agencies, is now one of a bewildering multitude hoisted over crisis facilities, on vehicles and in refugee camps around the world. United Nations agencies and even donor governments, through their official bodies, are an increasingly familiar sight in hot spots – not to mention soldiers in humanitarian guise.

One reason for the growth in players is, of course, that needs have grown. The number of people needing humanitarian and emergency assistance has increased, not least in the messy years since the end of the cold war.
But another less straightforward reason is perhaps the “politicisation” of humanitarian aid. Many crises have arisen in conflict situations where the international community has little to offer by way of enforceable political solutions, and little incentive to risk the lives of troops to try and impose or keep the peace.

Yet public opinion, alerted by the media, and just common decency demand that something be done, particularly if thousands of children and civilians are being slaughtered or their lives threatened. Time and again, horrendous and heart-rending scenes on our TV screens challenge our own humanity.

True, there is a lottery aspect as to which crises get the full blast of media attention. Equally true, the jury is still out as to whether media exposure actually affects government policy – whether in the aid field, or indeed in any other area. Many feel that politicians nowadays have learned to cope with intense bursts of media-induced public outrage, knowing that they will blow over, sometimes in a matter of days, as the “news agenda” moves on. But no Western government serious about its popular profile can afford to be seen as totally indifferent to this suffering.

The willingness of increasing numbers of existing and new aid organisations to respond to these crises has given donor governments an opportunity which they have seized. They can dwarf the often amazing generosity of the public with official funding. By supporting emergency response groups, politicians can show that they have not been idle, and that they are listening and reacting to the public’s demand for action.

This may seem to be a somewhat cynical interpretation of what happens. It is not necessarily to impugn the motivation of aid workers, most of whom have the noblest sentiments for doing what they do. But it is to recognise that they are often just pawns in a larger chess game, and that there is a dynamic at work fuelled by media exposure of humanitarian needs, politician’s eagerness to be seen to be doing the right thing, and agencies’ willingness to use the funds made available to swing into action.



The greater gain

Where do the beneficiaries stand in this dynamic? Can it be that they are being left out altogether? How can this even be a possibility when, after all, the beneficiaries are the raison d’être of the whole aid business in the first place?

Sometimes it is difficult not to wonder whether beneficiaries have any say in the often complex process that is unleashed at times of humanitarian crises. In the early days of aid, in retrospect, it was all relatively straightforward. Beneficiaries had a say – through their governments. Governments were presumed to represent their people. Development assistance still functions on this premise.

But today, humanitarian crises are usually tied up with conflict, and often involve governments oppressing sections of their own citizenry. The conflict may be between rival authorities, many of which are too weak or corrupt to be credible representatives of the interests of those whose allegiance they claim. In these situations, how are interests of the beneficiaries served?

Ultimately, it is the integrity of those providing emergency assistance that most counts. It is up to them, operating in a political vacuum or in situations in which no authority seems to be acting in the interests of those who most need help, to ensure that the beneficiaries have a say in how they are helped.

There is no doubt that, even with the best will in the world, this is not easy. Is an agency supposed to poll those whom it has helped to find out what they think? It sounds absurd, but perhaps there is something to it. Even in emergency situations, respect and attention to the voice of the local people should be a prerequisite to humanitarian action intended to help them. But how many agencies have the systems and take the trouble to do this?

The best measure

Does aid work? In the final analysis, the answer to this question lies with the beneficiaries, and a detailed look at how their lives have been affected, over time, by aid. Of course, accountability to donors is fundamental, too. But whereas accountability to donors receives a lot of attention and energy, how often is accountability to beneficiaries the yardstick? And difficult though it may be to measure, how much effort is put into the measurement?

Too little, would seem to be the answer. In the extraordinary swirl of events that engulfs many humanitarian crises, the notion of accountability gets swept aside and does not seem to feature in donors’, journalists’ or the public’s perceptions of what is going on. And by the time the crisis has passed, perhaps only aid academics have an interest in figuring out what actually happened, and whether lessons could be learned.

This may be about to change. Foreign aid budgets are likely to come under greater scrutiny as money gets tighter and domestic problems take priority. The public is likely to be increasingly bewildered by the plethora of actors competing for support to address problems which their collective efforts seem to be doing little to mitigate, as one disaster follows another, often in the same geographical area.

Today, emergency aid seems to be about the expurgation of political and other complexes in donor countries; in future, it may be judged by the degree to which it really helps address or “fix” problems – if only because those problems are becoming seriously expensive, politically unsettling and even economically threatening to donor countries.

The question “Does aid work?” will become more pertinent as the quality of aid becomes the issue. And those agencies which have most systematised their sensitivity to those they exist to help, and which can measure the impact of their work, will be well placed to survive the shake-out that might then well occur.


Michael Keating
Michael Keating is a communication consultant based in London.

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